Animal of the Month
March 2019

Name: Orangutan

Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Suborder: Haplorhini
Infraorder: Simiiformes
Family: Hominidea
Subfamily: Ponginae
Genus: Pongo
Species: Three with three subspecies
- Bornean Organgutan - Pongo pygmaeus
- Northeast Bornean Orangutan - P. pygmaeus morio
- Northwest Bornean Orangutan - P. pygmaeus pygmaeus
- Central Bornean Orangutan - P. pygmaeus wurmbii
- Sumatran Orangutan - P. abelii
- Tapanuli Orangutan - P. tapanuliensis

Size: 4 - 5 feet
Weight: 73 - 180 pounds

Characteristics: Thickly-built body, four very long arms and legs, two hands and hand-like feet, two forward-facing eyes, large nose and mouth, covered in shaggy hair everywhere except the face and bottoms of hands and feet. Males possess large cheek flaps, females do not.
Color(s): Reddish brown fur, with dark greyish skin.
Behavior: Arboreal, solitary.
Preferred Habitat: Tropical rainforests.
Range: Borneo and northern Sumatra.
Diet: Fruit, leaves, bark, insects and on rare occasions meat.
Lifespan: 30-40 years in the wild, up to 60 years in captivity.


Ever wonder who your distant cousins are? Try looking in Borneo or Sumatra! Orangutans are close cousins of humans, sharing around 97% of our DNA. The word "orangutan" means "person of the forest" in Malay. They live in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, spending most of their lives in the trees. Until recently it was thought that there were only two living species of orangutan, the Borneo orangutan (Pongo pymaeus) and the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). Then in 2017 a third species was discovered! This is the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

The three orangutan species look very similar, though they have a few differences. Sumatran orangutans are known to have longer beards, and Borneo orangutans have been observed having closer social interactions. Generally, orangutans are mostly solitary creatures. They spend almost all of their lives in the trees, though Borneo orangutans are more likely to venture to the ground. Orangutans have very long arms and legs, which are perfect for swinging from branch-to-branch. A male orangutan can extend his arms out seven feet! They spend their days searching for food, preferring leaves and fruits as well as bark, insects and sometimes meat. Orangutans spread seeds as they move about the jungle, helping to maintain their own ecosystem. At night they create a nest of leaves in the branches to sleep in.

Male orangutans are ready to mate at 15 years old. An adult male will de-velop cheek flaps if there are no other males in the area. If there are, a young male may not get his cheek flaps until he is 20 years old. Females are more attracted to males with cheek flaps. Males with cheek flaps will try to find females by howling loudly. After mating, a male with cheek flaps may form a relationship with the female and stay with her for days, weeks or even months, all the while protecting her from rival males. Males without cheek flaps have a more difficult time finding mates.

Female orangutans are able to have babies around 6-11 years old. However, they only reproduce once every eight years, the longest time of any known animal. They carry their baby for nine months just like humans. After giving birth they will form a close bond with their baby, raising it for about seven years.

Orangutans are very intelligent creatures. Like chimps they are capable of using tools. They are also capable of basic sign language! An example of orangutan intelligence is Chantek. Chantek was an orangutan born at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia and later grew up at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His language skills were never as developed as a human's, but he was able to sign things like "food-eat" or "gimmie drink" at only nine months old! As he got older he was able to increase his vocabulary, describe foreign concepts with words he already knew, and even tell lies! Orangutans have also been documented exchanging gifts and weighing the value of each gift; they are the only animals other than humans that are known to reason in this manner!

All three orangutan species are critically endangered. This is due to heavy logging operations that have fragmented their habitat. Orangutans are also hunted for food, as well as taken for illegal pets. Perhaps their biggest threat is palm oil. Much of their jungle is destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is used in a myriad of food products including peanut butter, candy and ready-to-eat meals. It's also used in cosmetics, biodiesel fuel and even machinery. Palm oil yields ten times that of soy oil and six times that of canola oil. As the global demand for palm oil grows, orangutans and many other animals are threatened.

Seen as an ambassador for dwindling rainforests, there are many programs working tirelessly to protect orangutans. Orangutan Foundation International seeks to protect orangutans and their habitat through research and public awareness. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program works with the Indonesian government to rescue captured orangutans and reintroduce them into the wild. Hard work must be done in the grocery store as well as in the field. It may be tempting to outright boycott palm oil; however, doing so may do more harm than good. The IUCN warns that if people stop buying palm oil, the demand for vegetable-based oils will be filled with other oils and thus continue or even accelerate environmental damage. A better course of action is to buy palm oil that is grown sustainably; buying sustainable palm oil promotes harmony with nature rather than its destruction.

To learn more about the orangutans and how to save them, check these awesome organizations out!

Orangutan Foundation International - Dedicated to preserving orangutans and their habitat.

Sumatran Organization Conservation Program - Working to save orangutans by rescuing illegal pets and establishing new genetic populations in the wild!

World Wild Life Fund, Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard - WWF has assembled a scorecard system, evaluating businesses from around the world on how sustainable (or not) their palm oil is. Note this is as of 2016; hopefully more recent data will be available.


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